'Flavit Jehovah et dissipati sunt': God blew with His winds and they were scattered (legend on an Armada commemorative medal of 1588).
The ‘Ditchley’ portrait of Elizabeth I (1533–1603) by Marcus Gheeraerts the younger, in the National Portrait Gallery (below), was the most popular painting on Art UK in April 2016. In it, Elizabeth is shown turning towards a sunny sky, standing dominant on a map of England represented as part of a globe of the world; behind her dark clouds and a bolt of lightning suggest past dangers overcome. Painted in 1592, this image was formerly at Ditchley, Oxfordshire, in the home of the Queen’s Champion, Sir Henry Lee, who commissioned it.
Even more famous is the ‘Armada’ portrait, painted about 1590 to mark the failure of the most serious threat of Elizabeth’s reign – Philip of Spain’s attempted invasion of 1588. His ‘Invincible Armada’ was finally routed after Sir Francis Drake’s night-time assault by fire-ships launched a chaotic battle near Calais, ending with the Armada then chased north in confusion. Rounding Scotland, a third of its ships and men were lost to storm and wreck on the way home, mainly on the coast of Ireland.
As in the later painting, the Armada portrait shows Elizabeth turned towards good fortune – this time a seascape vignette of the English fleet and the fire-ship attack in the Channel. Below this an imperial crown and her hand hovering over the Americas on a table globe suggest her imperial ambitions. Behind her, the arm of her chair of state is carved with a mermaid – a creature which lured seamen to destruction – and above that is a stormy view of Spanish ships being wrecked by night on a rocky coast. Elizabeth again stands dominant at centre with numerous embroidered suns on her gown, signifying power and enlightenment, and draped in strings of pearls as emblems of chastity and Diana, hunter goddess of the Moon.
There are three versions of this celebrated image: a cut-down one in the National Portrait Gallery and a version at Woburn Abbey, but this – the best-known – belongs to descendants of Drake, who may have commissioned it, though family ownership is only clear back to 1775.
Now, after generous loans of the painting to many past exhibitions, the family have decided to sell it, ideally to a UK public collection that can ensure its long-term preservation.
Given the subject, and since Elizabeth was born in the Palace of Greenwich, Royal Museums Greenwich are collaborating with the Art Fund to buy it for the National Maritime Museum collection and public display in the Queen’s House, Greenwich. This is itself the last surviving building of the former Palace and will re-open later this year after renovation to mark its own 400th anniversary.
The Government has already granted tax relief, which has nearly halved the agreed valuation of the painting of over £16 million, and the Art Fund has contributed £1 million. This leaves £8.6 million to raise, the aim being to do this within two months. Heritage Lottery Fund funding is also being sought but a group of other benefactors has promised to match general public donations pound for pound.
The Armada portrait is an exceptional historic image of female power and majesty. Scholars have described it as a definitive representation of the English Renaissance, encapsulating the creativity, ideals and ambitions of the Elizabethan ‘Golden Age’. It is a truly ‘iconic’ work, marking a watershed moment in history and the start of England’s, and later Britain’s, rise as a seafaring and imperial power. Perhaps more than any other portrait of ‘the Virgin Queen’ it has also inspired countless portrayals of Elizabeth in film, theatre and television, and has been instrumental in making her one of the most recognisable of historical figures.
If the campaign is successful, the painting will also enter public ownership in the 90th birthday year of the present Queen. There could not be a more appropriate way to mark this historic year. Please give your support.
Dr Kevin Fewster, Director, Royal Museums Greenwich
See the painting itself now, and through the summer, in the ‘Maritime London’ gallery of the National Maritime Museum
Donate online: artfund.org/armada
Text ARMADA to 70800 and donate £10
Call Royal Museums Grenwich on +44 (0)20 8312 6678
Please make cheques payable to Royal Museums Greenwich (Address: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London SE10 9NF)
Visit rmg.co.uk/armada for campaign updates